It’s been just over two years since UN Women unveiled its gender stereotype-busting advertising alliance alongside Unilever and a host of multnationals. Now, the organization’s executive director plans to turn up the message by making room at the table for smaller, local brands.
UN Women unveiled the Unstereotype Alliance at Cannes Lions back in 2017. The program’s aim is to wipe out stereotypes in advertising – such as the hapless dad and the stay-at-home mom – in the hope that both men and women will gradually fall out of societal gender norms.
Unilever was the first company to coin the term ‘Unstereotype’ in 2016. A year later it added credence to its initiative with the backing of the UN, as well as support from the likes of Google, Mars, Facebook, Microsoft and WPP at the 2017 launch.
Now, the company boasts membership of more than 40 companies, including multi-billion-dollar advertisers P&G, AT&T and Johnson & Johnson.
However, UN Women’s Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is no longer purely concentrating on the bank balance and reach of such multinationals. She’s begun to turn her attention to smaller, local brands, which she believes have the power to affect behavior change just as much as tech giants and CPG conglomerates.
“It's important to have the big brands and advertisers of the world [on board], but if I wanted to talk about something that is a cultural practice in Turkey, or in the Democratic Republic of Congo...people there are dealing with local products, some of which have nothing to do with the global brands,” she tells The Drum.
“Very local products can send a message, and they are also what local people can relate to.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka references the witty, topical marcomms of chicken franchise Nando’s in its native South Africa as an example of how local brands can kickstart important conversations between citizens. The UN official, who hails from the country herself, says South Africans now anticipate Nando’s response when something big happens on the national scale – be it political, sporting or cultural.
The QSR brand isn’t currently on the list of Unstereotype partners, however Mlambo-Ngcuka’s team is beginning to see success in its preliminary relationships with local advertisers. American Eagle’s lingerie sub-brand, Aerie, came on board last October, while Kenya’s Safaricom has signed up for vice-chair membership alongside AT&T, Unilever and Interpublic Group.
The latter agreement is a coup for UN Women due to Safaricom’s additional ability to help women gain financial independence. The company deals in mobile money, which is, according to Mlambo-Ngcuka, “a big thing in Kenya for the poor” – particularly women who want to safely save money independently from their husbands.
In order to tactically work with more of these local companies, the Unstereotype Alliance has been launching country chapters this year. By the end of 2019 it plans to have a coalition of local companies active in Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Kenya and United Arab Emirates.
So far, such local partnerships have formed organically. There has not been a “big recruiting drive” for partners; Mlambo-Ngcuka is more focused on spreading the alliance geographically, rather than signing up a swathe of advertisers that may be confined to one part of the world.
And in the wake of the backlash against Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign, which lambasted macho stereotypes to the chagrin of many, she is cognizant that change will come slowly, even in the most progressive nations.
“I guess the important thing is to create enough adverts and trends in the market so that you begin to really see the change,” she says. “We want to see [the removal of stereotypes] eventually become a way of life, so that everyone who's an advertiser does not then think twice about this because that's the way things are done.”
Advertisers the world over struggle with measurement, but UN Women’s challenge in measuring success is a level above. The outcome of the Unstereotype campaign cannot be measured in months or quarters, but years – generations even.
Yet Mlambo-Ngcuka, whose term as executive director will come to an end in 2021, is not a corporate chief executive with a board on her back. She admits it’s "far too early" to know if the work has substantively effected behavioral change in both developed and developing nations. But she is entirely confident it will one day pay off.
“[People in advertising] have so much power,” she says. “Two of the biggest barriers to gender equality are stereotypes and norms. Those are harder to change than laws. We know how to change laws. But after you change the law, it doesn't mean that you're going to change behavior. That is a skill that advertisers have.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka now needs the industry’s support for a second issue: the promotion and support of Generation Equality, a global forum taking place across Mexico City and Paris in 2020.
Marking 25 years since the Beijing Declaration, which the UN dubs the ‘most comprehensive blueprint to achieve women’s empowerment and gender equality’, UN Women is building out the refreshed Generation Equality platform to pass on and protect the essence of the agreement from the people and politicians “trying to tear it apart”.
The director is currently plotting a significant communications strategy for Generation Equality, with the hope of reaching as many young people as possible with its message. This will largely comprise social media outreach, but local radio and newspapers will also be used to connect with people in places where Snapchat and co are not “accessible or affordable”.
Additionally, Mlambo-Ngcuka wants to see brands at the convention itself. She needs them and their stakeholders to contribute to the gender equality conversation with thought leaders and politicians, as well as commit their own resources to solving problems such as the pay gap and female under-education.
Tech brands in particular will be loudly called upon in 2020 to do more than just feature a female engineer in their ads.
“Women are under-represented in tech products as well as connectivity, so we need to close this gap and we have targets that need to be met,” she says. “We know where in the world the gap is bigger and why, and we need content providers etcetera to come together to deal with this as a collective and take it forward.
“We need [tech brands] to sign on a dotted line; we will convene them with their checkbooks. Because this work is not free. It needs investment.”